As winter arrives and the days grow darker, Jorda feels a sense of dread. As a sufferer of severe asthma, the cold irritates her airways and makes it difficult to breathe. Yet every month, as her heating bills soar higher and higher, she is faced with a harrowing choice between her health and her finances.
“If I don’t turn on the heat, I’ll get sick, but if you can’t breathe you can’t survive,” she said. “Lately I cook one hot meal a day and prepare enough for the next one as I don’t want to use the hob again, but my energy costs still seem to go up and up. If I’m struggling now, what will I do in January?
The mother of two, who lives in north-west London, is one of 200,000 people with severe asthma in the UK. She is a debilitating condition that often does not respond well to treatment. With temperatures set to drop, experts fear many people suffering from respiratory ailments will not turn on their heating this winter, increasing the risk of properties becoming damp and mouldy.
Last week’s report into the death of child Awaab Ishak from mold in his Rochdale flat has heightened anxieties for people like Jorda, 43, who said her asthma was caused and made worse by living in damp, moldy properties in London.
This week The independent And the evening standard has jointly launched On the Breadline, a Christmas appeal in partnership with Comic Relief to support people like Jorda who are faced with impossible choices due to the cost-of-living crisis.
Jorda said her worsening condition has severely impacted her ability to work as a hairdresser and must be managed through a combination of oral steroids and regular injections. “I came to this country from Italy full of energy and hope, but now I have the lungs of an 80-year-old,” she said. “I have developed severe anxiety because I am afraid of having an asthma attack in public. I had to go to work even when I was sick because I had to keep earning money.”
Another who fears the oncoming cold is Sammie Jenkins, 33, who slept with her two daughters on a mattress in her living room in Lambeth while their bedroom wall is covered in black mould. In February, her three-year-old daughter Mckenzie was rushed to hospital, struggling to breathe. “It’s horrible to see your child get sick. I broke down crying about her seeing her go to the hospital for the first time.
The single mom says her daughter had no health issues before they moved into the property last July. She says the flat, which she rents from Lambeth Council, may need extensive repairs to prevent the damp from returning.
A council spokesman said they had been “working on fixing a number of problems for several months” but that the repairs were “complex” and taking “longer than we would like”. They said council workers had carried out a mold wash, a mold repaint in the bedroom and a complete refurbishment job in the bathroom. The contractors were also instructed to block the holes behind the kitchen cabinets “as soon as possible”.
Nick Hopkinson, professor of respiratory medicine at Imperial College London, said: ‘Cold itself damages the immune system and makes people more vulnerable to infection, but mold can really make asthma or other respiratory conditions worse. The most vulnerable are often the most exposed”.
Sarah Woolnough, CEO of Asthma + Lung UK, said the charity had heard of Londoners who were limiting their prescriptions or missing hospital appointments because they can’t afford to get there.
“This may be the tip of the iceberg: With millions of homes set to sink into energy poverty this winter, we are extremely concerned that the nation’s lung health will rapidly deteriorate if the government doesn’t step up to help the most vulnerable.”